Almost famous

For indie rock veteran Mark Kozelek, the former frontman of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, ‘getting out of your comfort zone is healthy,’ as he returns to Israel this month.

indie veteran Mark Kozelek 370 (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
indie veteran Mark Kozelek 370
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
One good thing about being a traveling musician like Mark Kozelek is that his touring destinations often result in inspiration for new songs. Take the indie cult legend’s first visit to Israel in 2011, where he performed what longtime Kozelek champion 88 FM DJ Boaz Cohen called an “unforgettable” show at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv.
Less than a year later, on his album Perils From The Sea, appeared the song “Baby In Death Can I Rest Next to Your Grave.”
Interspersed with trademark free-flowing travelogue images of stops in San Francisco, Miami and Melbourne, the founder of beloved indie bands Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon focused on his short stay in Israel in his typically sardonic manner: I took a bus to Jerusalem and took a peek at the Dead Sea got stuck in a traffic jam on the way back to Tel Aviv coulda been the scorching red sky coulda been the sand in my eyes but i think i missed the rock that Jesus touched and the wall where the Jews cried but the young girls looked lovely soaking in the sun in their army fatigues smoking cigarettes and the boys looked displaced in their crew cuts and shades holding AK-47s at 21 years of age “Yeah, getting in and out of Jerusalem was kind of funny. You had to get past a few young guys with machine guns on the way out,” said Kozelek, describing his visit in a recent email exchange with The Jerusalem Post ahead of his return for a show at the Zappa Tel Aviv on October 24. “I found Jerusalem to be a tourist trap. I hope that I don’t offend anyone by saying that.”
Nice of him to worry about what he says, but Kozelek has never pulled any punches over his 20-plus year career that has seen him rise to the pantheon of low-fi singer/songwriters with his rootsy, stripped-down sound and idiosyncratic, endearing lyrics. In an interview last year for the website of his record company, Caldo Verde, Kozelek provided a somewhat more sympathetic take on his experience in Israel that resulted in “Baby In Death Can I Rest Next to Your Grave.”
“That was the nicest part of the Israel trip, the reaction from the audience. I started to play [the Sun Kil Moon song] ‘Half Moon Bay’ and people immediately responded. I can’t even get that kind of response in my home town. I’d heard about artists cancelling a lot in Israel, due to threats, but I got in and out of there fine. As far as the county, being an outsider, I never felt threatened, but the presence of religion and military was in the air.
“The most surprising thing I saw was teenage girls in military clothes. It was an interesting trip and I had some good food and was treated well. These journeys are painful sometimes, the fast pace of them, but they are eye-opening at times, for sure. When you have to pass through a couple of kids with Uzis on your way out of Jerusalem, you don’t forget those images. Getting out of your comfort zone is healthy. It’s one thing to hear about how things work in other countries, but it’s another thing to be there.”
Kozelek has been just about everywhere and in between since leading Red House Painters from 1992 to 1998 while releasing acclaimed, but under-the-radar albums showcasing his intense, autobiographical songs. As one fan commented on a YouTube posting of “Brothers,” an emotional song from his latest album Mark Kozelek and Desertshore (featuring members of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon), “Mark Kozelek is about as real as they come.”
That bare vulnerability and almost obsessive compulsion to blurt out deep secrets in song has permeated dozens of memorable original nuggets. But not many artists can also non-ironically dish up cover songs by Stephen Sondheim, AC/DC, John Denver and Husker Du and integrate them seamlessly into their own personal style the way Kozelek does.
“I like him [Denver] a lot, but feel I’ve done my part in paying tribute to him. I’m onto other things,” Kozelek told the Post in response to whether he’s continued touting the music of the 1970s folk-pop star following the Denver tribute album he initiated in the early 2000s.
While championing a superstar like Denver, Kozelek prefers to stick to the road less commercially traveled. In fact, if anyone outside his small legion of fans has heard of him, it’s probably through his on-again, off-again acting career. He was the pro music ringer in the 1999 Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, about a fictional rock band in the 1970s (he played the bassist Larry), and joined Crowe again for a part in Vanilla Sky in 2001. (He also appeared in the 2005 Steve Martin film Shopgirl.) While enjoying the medium, Kozelek said that he prefers the more spontaneous art of performing music over acting hands down.
“I liked the pace of working on Almost Famous, but yes, for me, it felt a little unproductive. I didn’t have a very big part. That said, it was an amazing experience. A very happy time in my life,” he said.
Although much of his music could be considered moody and downbeat, Kozelek sounds upbeat talking about the path of his career and his extremely prolific rate of releasing new music.
“I think I’m better at songwriting now and it does come easier. I have faith in my initial instincts,” he said, adding that he prefers to perform alone now rather than with a band. “A band requires so much rehearsal and travel logistics. I didn’t mind it when I was younger, but there’s not much motivation for me to do it now.”
There seems to be even less motivation from the thoughtful singer/songwriter for the notion of the Red House Painters ever joining the alternative rock reunion bandwagon a la recent forays by the Pixies, Pavement and The Replacements.
“I would never do it, and do you know what? I’ve never received one offer. If promoters want to make it happen, they’ve never reached out,” he said.
Which may be a good thing, because instead, we’ve continued to have a steady flow of new Mark Kozelek songs.